KISMAYU'S one paved street is full of pedestrians, donkey carts, some private cars or trucks - and occasional small, white Belgian tanks.
This southern Somali port has seen the reopening of many of the shops that closed in February and March during fighting between rival sub-clans. Roadside stalls draw crowds of idle men for tea.
But even as representatives from Somalia's 15 warring factions began meeting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, last week to map out disarmament plans, talk along the main road here was of the latest revenge killings and the threat of more fighting here.
Kismayu is a microcosm of the ethnic divisions that have ripped this country apart in recent years. Some Somalis here hope it can become an example of how to mend those divisions.
But it will take time to overcome the hatred and fear between ethnic groups, according to both Somali and foreign analysts.
"The peace process is slow," says Omar Fen Awil Hassan, a local elder.
"It took years [for Somalia] to fall apart," a Western diplomat adds. "It will take years to put it back together."
The two main ethnic groups here are Ogadeni and Harti, sub-clans of the Darod clan. There are also less politically powerful groups that came here much earlier, including the Bajun, the Bimal, and the Bantu.
Harti and Ogadeni elders recently began regular peace negotiations, brought together by the United Nations. At a break during the talks, leaders from both sides said that left alone, without interference by the rival militia leaders, Kismayu residents could achieve peace. Elders appeal for peace
"Harti and Ogadeni were fighting because warlords were bringing people from both sides to fight to benefit themselves," says Abdi Dulane, an Ogadeni elder.
"We elders want the city to have peace," says Farah Abdi Giir, an elder aligned with the Harti.
The Harti came here decades ago, mostly as traders, and set up businesses. The mostly nomadic Ogadeni have long been herdsmen in the region. Many Harti and Ogadeni are related by marriage. Cross-sub-clan friendships are common here, based on years of coexistence.
But land ownership and other issues have divided the sub-clans. Militants on both sides claim their group arrived first and has practically an exclusive right to be here.
For example, while Ogadeni militia leader Col. Omar Jess ruled the city from early 1992 to February this year, he insisted that international relief agencies fire Harti employees. Now the Harti militia aligned with Gen. Mohamed Said Hersi, more commonly known as Morgan, is calling for the dismissal of all Ogadeni employees.
Last week a male nurse of a sub-clan aligned with the Ogadeni was stabbed to death in broad daylight. Two Western aid agencies - Belgium-based Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - suspended their Kismayu operations because of recent violence, Reuters reported.
"Those whose mothers, brothers, and fathers were killed want revenge," says Mr. Abdi Giir, one of the negotiators.
Local peace talks are being carried out in this atmosphere of distrust, which permeates this town like the sands blowing in from the beaches.
Most Ogadeni elders who remain in the city are living at a police station or in the local hospital, guarded by Belgian troops. They are shuttled to and from the negotiations in a guarded truck. Foreign aid workers are also shuttled around under Belgian guard. Some Somalis say tensions here still are too high for foreigners to move about unarmed.
The local hospital is crowded with Somalis who were stabbed or shot in sub-clan fighting. Battling for city
From early last year until mid-February, Colonel Jess, who is aligned with the Hawiye sub-clan leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, ruled Kismayu. In December, "there was a brutal massacre of elite by the Ogadeni aligned with Jess," the Western diplomat says. Harti leaders say 749 were killed.
Since Feb. 22, a Harti militia has controlled the city, though Jess, camped near here, told the Monitor he is ready to fight to take Kismayu again.
Displaced Bimal and Bantu families living in camps of stick huts fled their farming regions north of here after robberies that continue in Somalia's anarchy.
Some relief agencies are trying to help the refugees return to their homes. Oxfam/UK, for example, is providing fishing lines, seeds, and tools to many families who do go home, says Owen Calvert, who represents the organization here.
"I came here because of hunger and war," says Muhina Mamanga Maliko, a Bantu, as he shows visitors his hut. He and his fellow residents in one of the many camps for the displaced here get rations from the ICRC.
"I want to go back when the war is over," he says.